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End Punctuation in Context

Most people think there can't be much to say, that is interesting, about end punctuation. The reading selections below challenge this notion.  Kenneth Wilson helps us understand why too much exclamation (hyperbole) is a bad idea; John Suler explains how people use exclamation marks in email communication; and Wikipedia.com, an online encyclopedia "written collaboratively by volunteers from around the world," explains what a "tag question" is, and how many spaces are supposed to go after a full stop before the start of the next sentence. These articles will help you understand some of the subtleties involved in using these punctuation tools effectively, and even creatively.

The Exclamation Mark:

Kenneth G. Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English

Hyperbole (hei-PUHR-buh-lee) is exaggeration for effect, a locution that exaggerates or makes an extravagant statement: I’m so tired, I’m just dead. Their center must be eight feet tall—a monster. To be hyperbolic (the adjective, pronounced hei-puhr-BAHL-ik) in speech is a characteristic frequently attributed to American enthusiasm, and it can indeed make discourse lively and interesting. But few peaks stand out in a mountain range full of peaks, and too much hyperbole is like shouting all your conversations. Use hyperbole sparingly.

"Email communication and Relationships" from John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace.

Hello Sam. Thank you for the message you sent. I enjoyed it. I didn't know that you felt that way. Let's talk more about it.

Hello Sam! Thank you for the message you sent. I enjoyed it!! I didn't know that you felt that way. Let's talk more about it!

Hello Sam!! Thank you for the message you sent!! I enjoyed it!!! I didn't know that you felt that way!!! Let's talk more about it!!!

How and when to use exclamation points is a bit of an art form. Unless the sentiment of the sentence is clearly negative, they tend to lighten up the mood. But like spice in cooking, there are dangers of excess as well as omissions. Leaving out exclamation points entirely - as in the first example above - may result in a message that appears emotionally bland, ambiguous, maybe overly serious. Without even a hint of enthusiasm, some people might wonder if the sender is suppressing some hostility. On the other extreme, too many exclamation points - as in the third example above - may result in a message mood that seems contrived, shallow, or even uncomfortably manic. A message peppered lightly with exclamations, at just the right spots, can give the message a varying texture of energy that emphasizes what needs to be emphasized. Of the three examples above, the second best illustrates this.

Beware of subject headings written all in caps, embellished with asterisks and exclamation points, or containing overly friendly or seductive messages ("Just wanted to say hello...") - especially when you don't recognize the sender's name. If it looks and smells like spam, it's spam.


The Question Mark

"Tag Question" Wikipedia.com (for full article, visit Wikipedia.com)

In most languages, tag questions are more common in colloquial spoken usage than in formal written usage. They can be an indicator of politeness, emphasis, or irony. They may suggest confidence or lack of confidence; they may be confrontational or tentative. Some examples showing the wide variety of structure possible in English are:

Open the window, will you?

She doesn't really want that, does she?

You'd better stop now, hadn't you?


The Period, or "full stop"

Spacing after a period (from "Full Stop," Wikipedia.com)

In typewritten texts and other documents printed in fixed-width fonts, there is a convention among lay writers that two spaces are placed after the full stop (along with the other sentence enders: question mark and exclamation mark), as opposed to the single space used after other punctuation symbols. This is sometimes termed "French spacing."

In modern English-language typographical usage, debate has arisen concerning the proper number of trailing spaces after a full stop (or exclamation mark, or question mark) to separate sentences within a paragraph. Whereas two spaces are still regarded by many outside the publishing industry to be the better usage for monospace typefaces, the awkwardness that most word-processing applications have in representing correctly the 1.5 spaces that had previously become standard for typographically proportional (non-monospace) fonts has led to some confusion about how to render the space between sentences using only word-processing tools.

Many descriptivists (i.e. people who describe how language is used in practice) support the notion that a single space after a full stop should be considered standard because it has been the norm in mainstream publishing for many decades. This is supported by the MLA, APA, and the The Chicago Manual of Style. . . . Many prescriptivists (i.e. people who make recommendations for rules of language use), meanwhile, adhere to the earlier use of two spaces on typewriters to make the separation of sentences more salient than separation of elements within sentences. Since current style guides are founded on the consensus of practice, the evidence strongly suggests that most people accept the single space in modern word-processing, largely for the reason that two spaces may stretch inordinately when full justification is applied. Additionally, many computer typefaces are designed proportionately to alleviate the need for the double space (the opposition would of course reply that this does nothing to satisfy the aforementioned saliency issue). Most widely accepted contemporary style guides categorically require that only one space be placed after full stops and similar punctuation marks, and they characterise modern practice as avoiding it.


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